The 1890 census showed 2300 Italians in New Haven, who made up 2.9% of the city’s total population. By 1900 there were 7,780 Italians in New Haven, or 7.2% of the city’s population. This increase was only partly a result of immigration: 2,518 members of the growing community were native-born. This statistic was significant because it indicated a certain permanence for the community. It no longer consisted of isolated individuals, solitary males, itinerant workers, and young boys working for a padrone. Families were taking root here in spite of the fact that the majority of Italians then, and even in later years, came to America expecting to stay temporarily. Few had any intentions of settling here permanently. Most expressed a desire to work hard, accumulate some cash, and return to their native villages in southern Italy. An explanation of the rapid growth after 1890 of the Italian community requires a look at social and economic conditions in Italy and the industrial needs of the expanding American economy.
A sizeable emigration from Italy had started in the 1840’s. Between 1840 and 1890, Italian emigrants favored South America for settlement, but they also moved in small numbers to North America, to Australia, and to other more prosperous European countries. A serious economic crisis in rural Italy in the 1860’s gave added impetus to emigration from the poor and turbulent country. Poverty and unemployment were commonplace, especially among agricultural workers. Land ownership was concentrated in the hands of a few wealthy landlords. Most agricultural workers were hired laborers. The more marginal small landowners were frequently forced to supplement their meager incomes with day labor. Often what purported to be farm tenancy was in reality a form of sharecropping. Ancient tools, primitive farming techniques, and a near feudal relationship with the landlord made nineteenth-century farm work little different from that of previous eras. The tax burden was especially onerous to the southern peasant because a large proportion of his taxes was spent on inefficient government administration and on industrial development in the North.
The lack of access to education, obvious even to the uneducated, kept the peasantry at its low level. In 1900, for example, three out of four southern Italians over six years old were illiterate. In the North education was only slightly more available. The landless southern Italians were likewise denied access to the political arena which might have offered redress for some of their grievances. Only two percent of the Italian population was even allowed to vote.
Between 1862 and 1901 (a period coinciding with the development of cheap overseas transportation), 2.5 million Italians left Italy permanently. In the same period twice as many emigrated temporarily, working in alien lands for a few seasons or years and returning to Italy to live. Italian officials did nothing to stem the tide. It is even reasonable to believe that officials saw emigration as a safety valve for a potentially explosive internal problem they were unable to solve.
The Italian population in the United States and in New Haven increased in spite of conflicts between organized labor and the immigrants. The Knights of Labor opposed contract labor or any immigration which involved an employer who paid for the passage of a laborer in return for future services. They felt Italian laborers were threatening to reduce living standards by driving down wages; they also feared the Italians as potential strike-breakers. In spite of the Knights’ and others’ opposition and the federalization of immigration control to eliminate “undesirable,” the Italian flow to the United States did not slow down while America’s factories needed cheap, unskilled labor.
Periodic return trips made by the emigrants, word of mouth about America, letters written by a padrone to an emigrant’s relatives and fellow villagers started a chain migration or immigration; earlier immigrants helped new ones to pay for passage, find lodgings, and secure jobs in the new country. The padrone’s services were invaluable. His letters on behalf of his “ward” told stories of life in America. He sent the immigrant’s savings back to Italy; he acted as interpreter and quasi-lawyer for the new immigrants trying to adjust to American life. Since the padrone and his “wards” were frequently from the same town or village in Italy, the padrone system performed the same function as the traditional family and kinship group had in Italy. This system was largely responsible for the tendency for members of the same village to settle in a particular section of an American city.